“I must confess that in this country, we must comply and learn the art of war from enemy Indians or anything else who have seen the country and war carried on in it.”
—Brigadier General John Forbes, British Army, letter to William Pitt, May 19, 1758—
Its May 28, 1754. A young major is acting on orders to expel a group of French Canadians from small patch of land in what is now Farmington, PA. His party is small, comprised of American militia and members of the native Catawba tribe. The line advances toward a small outcropping of rock and soil and positions itself over the small group they were sent to dispatch. As the men level their flintlocks at the Canadians, one of the sleeping enemy group wakes and sounds the alarm with a pistol shot.
The major orders his men to open fire. The Indians in his party circle around the group and attack from the opposite side, and the line of militia advances as the Indians engage with tomahawks, knives, and other blunt weapons. Within fifteen minutes, it’s over. The major walks over to the corpse of the French commander. The head has been cleaved in half by the Native American leader who is still holding the bloody tomahawk, watching the man’s blood flow into the rich, dark earth. This is the beginning of the French and Indian War, a conflict that is rarely discussed or mentioned despite the fact that it was the prelude to the Revolutionary War, suffered more casualties and led to a war in Europe, and was the beginning of hostile relations between the British and the American colonists.
This American Life
Before we dive into this war, it is important to first describe the way of life in the American colonies during this time. North America of the 1740-1760s had been colonized by Great Britain and France, each arbitrarily claiming land as part of their empire. French territory stretched from western Nova Scotia all the way to Louisiana while the British occupied coastal lands from Newfoundland to Georgia. British America comprised the smaller of the two territories, even though its population outnumbered that of New France by at least twenty-to-one. Interlaced within all these territories were Native American tribes—the Iroquois Confederation, Delaware, Shawnee, Catawbas, Creeks, Choctaw, and Cherokee just to name a few. British interests focused on settling new lands and shipping exports from their colonies to the mother country, while the French, being substantially sparser in number, focused on fur trading, trapping, and fishing.
Depending on the tribe, Native Americans would either befriend and trade with the European settlers, or they would slaughter them. Though there were established settlements and towns all up and down the East Coast of what is now the United States, the wild, untamed wilderness was mere miles away. In those woods were unpredictable natural elements, predatory wildlife, and the ongoing unstable relations between some Native American tribes. The wilderness was hard, and the people that lived within its boundaries became hard.
To protect themselves, colonists used a rifle called the Brown Bess, a .79 caliber flintlock musket. For close combat, if and when they ran out of ammunition or didn’t have time to reload, colonists would use a variety of hand weapons like tomahawks, hatchets, axes, knives, and even swords. It is important to understand that wars at this time in history were not waged at a distance. I want to emphasize this, because I want you, our listener, to understand the nature of this war. When you killed another person, you could see them. You could see the flesh separate from the impact of the musket ball. You could see the brain matter from the skull that was cleaved by a tomahawk, or witness the effects of scalping from corpses that lined the road. If you were engaged in close combat, the last breath of your opponent would probably be in your face.
Whispers of War
The first whispers of conflict began in June 1747 when Governor-General Galissonière of New France ordered a military expedition lead by Pierre-Joseph Celoron to protect trade routes and settlements within the Ohio Country, an area of land which encompassed present-day Ohio, northwestern West Virginia, western Pennsylvania, and eastern Indiana. British traders had begun to encroach on the territory due to the lack of a consistent French presence and the ease with which they could move in and out of these lands. Tensions between the two countries were generally high at this time, both from conflicts overseas and from ongoing political clashes in the New World.
At that time, there were no official French soldiers in America. Instead, French interests were defended and advanced by groups of colonial settlers called the Troupes de la Marine. These militiamen had advanced woodland combat and survival experience, but their lack of numbers made it difficult to police the territory. To combat this, Governor Galissonière focused his expedition on forming alliances with the different Indian tribes, emphasizing the British threat, and demonstrating France’s resolve. In doing this, the French created allies who knew the terrain, tactics, and practices that could deal damage to the much larger British presence in the region. In the early parts of the war, these alliances would prove invaluable.
As word of the expedition reached London and Paris, the different sides began to reissue territorial claims, igniting new disputes along the trade routes. From 1749 to 1752 negotiations were conducted by several representatives from both sides in the colonies about who controlled specific territories. One of these concessions was permission given by the Iroquois to British colonist and negotiator Christopher Gist to build a strong house—a small fortress—at the mouth of the Monongahela River. This would eventually expand into a much larger complex, called Fort Pitt, the outline of which can still be seen in Pittsburgh today.
The French advanced using Celoron’s maps to protect the interests of New France from British expansion. They constructed forts at Lake Erie’s south shore, in what is now Waterford, PA. As they moved, French forces drove off British traders and settlers. When the Iroquois learned of the French expedition, they sent runners to organize a meeting with the Governor of New York to request assistance. When the conference was arranged, Chief Hendrick of the Mohawk tribe shared his concerns with the British about the French threat. Unfortunately, the chief did not receive the response he wanted, and as a result the alliance between the Iroquois and British was left in tatters.
Governor Robert Dinwiddie of Virginia ordered an armed response to the French incursions. Here, we find the young major named George Washington given command of a small group of militia and Indians to advance and link up with additional forces at Fort Duquesne before it was captured by the French. Learning of the fort’s surrender and the withdrawal of the forces, Washington discovered a small French scouting party moving through the area. He joined with another small group of Native American warriors and attacked the party during the Battle of Jumonville Glen. It was here that Major Washington saw the blood soak into the soil from the cleaved skull of the French commander. At that moment, there was war in America.
On paper, the war would seem all but lost by the French. The British had been in-country longer and had better control of supplies, trade routes, and shipping lanes. Additionally, the British fleet regularly blockaded French ports, preventing supplies from reaching the colonial troops. Despite these advantages, the British war effort was hindered by two primary factors, both of which have been attributed to a sense of hubris. First, the British damaged relations with their Native American allies. The French recognized that many native tribes were favorably disposed to the British, but rather than cultivating strong ties with the locals, the British instead showed hesitancy and weakness in negotiations. Second, compared to their French counterparts, British soldiers lacked woodland combat experience and strategy. When red-coated British regulars finally arrived to combat the French, they used line infantry and volley fire, both of which were not effective in forest warfare. Additionally, the brightly-colored uniforms, loud commands, and complete disregard for the importance of covert operations made most British regulars easy targets. In contrast, most of the French settlers had fought as militiamen, were battle-hardened, experts in forest warfare, and had strong alliances with Indian tribes that controlled varying territories.
Major Washington’s victory at Jumonville Glen was short-lived. He was pushed back several miles and built Fort Necessity in Fayette County, PA, which he promptly surrendered shortly thereafter. When word of this defeat, and others elsewhere in the Thirteen Colonies, reached Great Britain, the government dispatched an expeditionary force to assist the colonists in fighting the French. Major General Edward Braddock was chosen to lead this force, even though he had not been in-country, nor did he have any experience in the chaos of warfare in the New World. This lack of experience doomed Braddock’s effort to retake Fort Duquesne when he engaged the enemy at the Battle of the Monongahela in July 1755. The French and Indians repelled British forces through direct fire from the fort and a crossfire from the surrounding woods. Braddock was mortally wounded early in the battle, and over nine hundred British soldiers were killed or wounded (many of the latter had to be left behind). George Washington, who was serving with Braddock, managed to rally the remaining troops to organize the retreat. As he rode back and forth through the lines, his horse was shot out from under him—twice. From the ground he continued to organize the retreat, eventually finding another horse, and despite the overwhelming evidence that the Lord of Creation wanted him to walk, he mounted again, and successfully pulled his men back to safety, saving over four hundred lives.
Washington recorded in his journal—and a letter to his mother—that later that night he had removed his coat and held it up to the light, which shone through four bullet holes, two of which were near center-mass. This experience was what prompted one of the Indian chiefs who fought against him at Monongahela to seek out his old rival many years later. The old man said, “Our rifles were leveled, rifles which, but for you, knew not how to miss...I am come to pay homage to the man…who can never die in battle."
After the loss at the Monongahela, Britain took several steps to increase the military’s strength and effectiveness in the colonies. Governor William Shirley of Massachusetts and General William Johnson of New York were tasked with securing forts along the Franco-British border. Though Shirley struggled to recruit new soldiers, Johnson was able to secure his assigned forts to the chagrin of the French. Because of this, the French sent troops to confront Johnson’s five thousand soldiers. The two forces met in the Battle of Lake George, where Johnson was wounded but won a major victory.
Later that year, French regulars arrived on American soil under the command of experienced veterans of the War of Austrian Succession. The English formally declared war on France and conflict would eventually spread to Europe, where it would be called the Seven Years War. The French then advanced on all fronts in North America, and Britain’s prospects began to dim. In 1757, Britain planned to attack New France’s capital of Quebec using forces from Fort William Henry in New York. However, French reinforcements reached the capital, and the British were forced to cancel this operation.
At the same time, Fort William Henry was slowly being besieged. Raids by French and Indian forces destroyed storehouses and cut supply lines as seven thousand French troops tightened their grip on the fort. English forces fought for days against the advancing French and Indian troops, but they eventually had to surrender and withdraw. Once the battle was over and safe passage was guaranteed for the British survivors, the Indians aligned with the French disregarded these terms and massacred men, women, and children in the retreat.
The Tide Turns
In 1758, British Prime Minister William Pitt devised a new strategy that he believed would win the war. While Britain’s continental allies would press the French in Europe, the Royal Navy would blockade the coast and seize French assets at sea and at the same time deliver new expeditionary forces of regulars to attack and capture French colonies all over the world.
Combined with a poor harvest in France and corruption and mismanagement in Paris, the French war effort began to lose steam. Pitt ordered British officers in North America to attack three vital forts that guarded the approaches into New France. While only two of these expeditions succeeded, it did strike a blow to French power in America. In addition to the losses experienced in North America, the French were experiencing global losses. As the Seven Years War rolled on, French ministers devised plans to invade the island of Great Britain, which failed on all fronts. Resources desperately needed for the American campaign were forever lost, and the English blockades prevented most of the French fleet from reaching North America. British victories continued with a major success won at Signal Hill, in which French forces captured the city of St. John’s in Newfoundland but were then driven back by the British. The last British victory came at Quebec in September 1759 after a three-month siege. Both commanding generals died during the battle, as did over two thousand soldiers.
The surrender was negotiated between the French governor in Montreal and a British general in September 1760. Under its terms, French soldiers were to return to France and never fight again on American soil, and French settlers were allowed to remain (if they so choose) and exercise the religious rights to which they were accustomed. French forts and territories were converted and transferred to the British, who instituted policies that angered several Native American tribes. As a result, raids on settlements and forts continued until 1766. Even though peace had been won in the American colonies, hostilities between the two nations continued until 1763 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris that ended the Seven Years’ War.
The war changed the landscape of North America and the world. Britain became the world’s greatest power, now possessing the largest empire of any European nation and controlling global trade. They also imposed new taxes on the American colonies to compensate for the debt incurred during the war. These taxes were met with intense resistance, which eventually prompted Britain to send troops to the Thirteen Colonies to enforce taxation edicts. This influx of British troops and the ongoing taxation without representation would be the beginnings of the Revolutionary War.
France lost all its territories, while Spain gained control of the Louisiana Territory. Native Americans were confronted with new colonial settlements west of the Appalachian mountains, leading to new conflicts with the British. New regulations forced many tribes to resettle, causing even more problems given Spain’s acquisition of the lands west of the Mississippi River. For all the inhabitants of the New World, life would never be the same.
Given all this, why don’t we care more about this war? Quite simply, because it stands in the historical shadow of the Revolutionary War. British gains in the New World were already part of their colonial plans, making the outcome of the French and Indian War much less of a surprise and more of a confirmation. In contrast, the Revolutionary War ended in a way that no one expected with the utter defeat of the leading superpower on American soil. And yet, the French and Indian War was the first turning point of American history. Its horror and blood birthed the rise of single dominant superpower in North America, paving the way for Thirteen Colonies to declare independence from that superpower. For these reasons, the French and Indian War is an important part of American heritage, history, and way of life.